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OPM-GSA Merger Plan Would Create ‘Additional Uncertainty’ in Retirement Processing Reform

A government watchdog report said the Trump administration’s proposal to merge the federal government’s HR agency with the General Services Administration could make it more difficult to modernize the retirement process.

A government watchdog agency reported Friday that the Trump administration’s plan to merge the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration might complicate rather than jumpstart efforts to improve the retirement claims process.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on the long bemoaned process by which the federal government greenlights retirement benefits for departing employees, and found a number of deficiencies with both the status quo and efforts to improve and modernize the system.

“Delays in processing retirement applications for federal employees have been a longstanding problem,” GAO wrote. “According to OPM, it has identified root causes for the delays and has developed and implemented strategies to improve its processing operation . . . However, without improving its data collection and assessments of its strategies, OPM cannot know whether its strategies are effective at reducing the delays, or could be modified to yield better results.”

For years, OPM’s retirement backlog has been a sore subject with federal workers, retirees and lawmakers. Much of the system for vetting claims is still done on paper, and the agency maintains an abandoned mine in Boyers, Pa., to store retirement documents.

GAO found that while OPM has a strategic plan to modernize the process, it remains only partially implemented, and officials lack a projected timeline or cost estimate to complete the project.

“OPM officials said that additional IT modernization work is dependent on sufficient funding, support from the Office of the Chief Information Officer, and development of a technical enterprise architecture roadmap,” auditors wrote. “These components are important. However, they do not preclude OPM from establishing a basic project management plan that includes objectives, estimated cost ranges, and proposed time frames for its initial project phases. Without a plan that is consistent with IT project management principles, OPM is less able to articulate a path forward in measurable terms and assess performance toward achieving its objectives.”

Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert has argued that the administration’s proposal to merge OPM with GSA would allow GSA to apply its IT expertise to modernization efforts such as those needed in retirement processing. But GAO found that the plan actually could delay the initiative even further.

“The administration’s proposal to move the retirement application processing operation to the General Services Administration has created additional uncertainty for OPM,” GAO wrote. “Potential changes in organizational affiliation, policy, budget and staff may make it difficult for OPM to plan for large-scale changes in its operations.”

Absent a wholesale record digitization effort, OPM in recent years has tried to mitigate issues with the existing system by increasing its staffing. But GAO found that the agency’s use of extra hiring and overtime during the peak season of January through April has not been critically evaluated.

“According to OPM officials, senior and frontline managers review processing data, such as age of pending applications, weekly to identify potential concerns, and adjust staffing and workload if necessary,” GAO wrote. “However, we found that OPM’s performance information may be of limited use for assessing processing delays because the data lacked elements that would provide a more complete measure of performance.”

Auditors issued five recommendations, all related to establishing a more detailed plan to implement IT modernization initiatives and a more detailed approach to analyzing retirement processing performance and the effectiveness of staffing decisions. OPM partially concurred or fully concurred with all recommendations, and noted officials would work to mitigate any negative impacts caused by the proposed merger to GSA, if it the plan moves forward.

“[Retirement Services’] ability to implement the IT modernization plan is dependent on the availability of funding, which RS will continue to work with the Office of the Chief Information Officer on to ensure they include the plan in their budget request,” wrote Kenneth Zawodny, associate director of Retirement Services at OPM. “Additionally, RS will work with OPM leadership to ensure any transfer of IT functions to GSA that impact modernization efforts will be identified and mitigated to the extent possible.”